WhatsApp Is Changing the Way People in India Grow and Buy Food

The social media app is making new connections between farmers and consumers.
A farmer carries vegetables from a farm in Noida, India. (Photos: Burhaan Kinu/Getty Images; Flickr)
Feb 9, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

Farmers Santhosh Kittur and Abhijit Kamath wanted to grow pesticide-free vegetables between the rows of banana plots each separately owned. Their shared interest in old-fashioned agricultural practices brought them together to grow bitter gourd, cucumbers, beans, cabbage, tomatoes, green chiles, red peppers, onions, and garlic—staples of the Indian customers and kitchens they planned to serve. But their modern approach to marketing has put them in direct contact with customers in a high-tech manner.

Across India, WhatsApp groups are not only connecting farmers to their customers in the virtual market—they’re creating a network of resources and support for the country’s farmers who need it most.

In Kittur and Kamath’s WhatsApp group, created last August, the two farmers post updates from their farms, including photographs, as well as what produce is available to the group’s 80 members. Vegetables are sold on Thursdays and Sundays. Members can place dibs on the quantity of specific vegetables they want and can pick up their order or have it delivered. It’s like a CSA built on social media.

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“First preference is given to the members of the group. The system has worked well for us, even financially,” Kittur told the Deccan Herald. Recognizing efforts of Kittur and Kamath, the University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad, honored them with an “Outstanding Young Farmer” award.

The social media–enabled supply is helping to meet growing demand in India for chemical-free produce. In October, a report published by the Agriculture Ministry showed that the amount of vegetables, fruits, meat, and spices with pesticide residues above the permitted maximum level had nearly doubled in the past seven years. Vegetables accounted for more than half the samples that exceeded the residue limit set by the food regulator, with green chiles, cauliflower, and cabbage ranking as some of the greatest offenders—and Kittur and Kamath’s greatest sellers.

“It is very hard to find chemical-free vegetables. We had stopped using cabbage, cauliflower, and brinjal [eggplant] after learning about their high chemical content,” customer Shraddha Bagi said in the same interview. “When these farmers supply fresh and safe vegetables right at our doorsteps, we should definitely encourage them. It’s come to such a point where we eagerly wait for their produce.”

Across India, WhatsApp isn’t only used as a marketing tool—it has also created a kind of support network among farmers. A WhatsApp group called Baliraja, which has more than a hundred farmers from various villages, has become a place to share agricultural advice, connect with experts, and learn new farming practices. For example, founder Anil Bandawane made videos of experts advising the group on fertilizers and pesticides, weather trends, and farming technologies. Farmers also used the app to discuss the market value of zucchini or the pros and cons of milking robots, The Better India reported.

Within the group, Amol Sainwar—the founder of HOPE, a nonprofit that works on rural development and children’s rights—is a go-to problem solver. When farmers lamented losses they faced owing to a lack of available warehouse space, Sainwar worked to build one that could serve at least three villages.

“Farmers’ queries are getting answered quickly,” Sainwar told TakePart via email. “Today we are connected to about 2,000 farmers.”

The issues for Indian farmers have more dire consequences than may be immediately recognizable to an outsider. In the last 20 years, nearly 300,000 farmers have committed suicide by ingesting pesticides or hanging. Maharashtra state, where Baliraja is based, consistently tops the list for the greatest number of suicides each year. In the first six months of 2015, The Times of India reported that 1,300 farmers there committed suicide, representing 66 percent of the state’s suicide toll for the previous year.

“Today, farming is like the gambling business,” Sainwar wrote. Farmers usually take out loans against the value of their land to buy seeds, pay salaries, and acquire irrigation equipment. In place of banks, local moneylenders boost interest rates each year, creating a debt trap for the farmers who rely on crop success to repay their loans. According to India’s chamber of commerce, less than 20 percent of farmers are insured against crop losses. In a country where agriculture remains the largest employment sector, it contributed only 13.7 percent to the GDP in 2012–13, Al Jazeera reported.

“Chances of getting return on investment have become low,” Sainwar wrote. “Can you imagine the level of stress—and hence depression—of a person who doesn’t have any security for food, water, clothing, or education?”

Baliraja has been working with widows to help them create new revenue streams for their families via goat farming, sewing, and cooking services, and they have used their WhatsApp group as a crowdfunding source, Sainwar said. “In the last six months, we empowered five widows, and we will keep on doing so,” he added.

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In Punjab, a WhatsApp group started by Dr. Amrik Singh, an officer in the local agricultural office, allows a greater number of farmers to receive expert input on agricultural practices.

“We have a shortage of staff in our department. If we visit a few villages daily, we can only meet a few dozen farmers. But on WhatsApp, we can interact with several farmers daily,” Singh told Indian Express. The group now has 90 farmers and 10 experts, and growers in the group have set up subgroups with others in their immediate vicinity to share information.

On the level of daily interaction, the WhatsApp groups are successful at providing a sounding board of assistance and in motivating farmers. “That’s why engineers [are] turning into farmers. Artists [are] turning into farmers,” Sainwar said.

The Baliraja WhatsApp group is aiming higher too. It is helping to amplify members’ voices to get the attention of the highest levels of government, impressing on the prime minister and the chief minister of Maharashtra the importance of issues such as crop insurance, land security, farmer education, and increased support.